Little known danger

Electromagnetic pulse poses existential threat to the nation

By Anthony Plescia, Staff Writer

Most of Schoolcraft students might remember the great blackout of 2003. On Aug. 14 of that year, the entire Northeastern United States and parts of Canada experienced a major power outage. The entire incident was triggered by overgrown tree branches shorting out high tension power lines in Eastlake, Ohio. This short-out cascaded into a regional shutdown of the electric grid for 50 million people. Fortunately, the outage was restored within a couple of days, and household plug-in electronics such as microwaves and refrigerators still worked.

Imagine if not only the lights go out, but the aforementioned household appliances get fried at the same time. This would be the result of a massive coronal mass ejection (CME) hitting the Earth. In 1859, such a CME slammed into the planet and caused telegraph cables to burn out worldwide. When this giant bit of charged plasma hit, it distorted Earth’s magnetosphere and produced strong geomagnetically-induced currents within the cables. This geomagnetic super-storm, known as the “Carrington Event,” was the largest ever recorded on the planet.

Now imagine if independently powered electronic devices such as cell phones, laptops and even automobiles suddenly ceased functioning. In this instance, the cause is the detonation of a nuclear weapon high in the atmosphere. When a nuclear weapon is detonated at an altitude of more than 18 miles, the explosion distorts the magnetosphere in a similar manner to a geomagnetic superstorm. This results in a phenomenon known as an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). Whether an EMP is produced by a nuclear weapon or the Sun, it is a serious threat to the power grid.

The grid is vulnerable because it has two kinds of crucial components that are highly vulnerable to EMP. One of them is a device known as an Extra High Voltage (EHV) transformer. These transformers are not only highly susceptible to damage from EMP, they are also extremely difficult to replace. It takes at least one year to make just one of them, and the only countries that sell them for export are South Korea and Germany. The other crucial component of the electric grid is a device called the Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition (SCADA). This is basically a computer which controls the operation of electronic systems. There are millions of these devices used in the electric grid and other critical infrastructures such as water and gas distribution. All of these systems are highly vulnerable to a nuclear EMP attack.

Fortunately, there are technologies which can be used to harden electronics. Faraday cages are useful for blocking the pulse from entering EHV transformers and SCADAs/computer systems. Surge arrestors and capacitor blocking systems are useful for protecting EHV transformers from pulses originating from geomagnetic storms and a high altitude nuclear explosion. The electric grid and all other critical infrastructures can and must be protected from a nuclear EMP attack with these technologies. This is because the EMP effect from a nuclear weapon produces three different pulse signals; it shares only one of these signals with geomagnetic storms. Therefore, if all electronic infrastructures are protected from the EMP effect from a nuclear weapon, they will also be protected from geomagnetic super storms like the Carrington Event.

For years, Congress has been trying and failing to pass legislation to protect the electric grid from EMP. As a result, states are beginning to take action on their own. For example, Virginia passed a law last year requiring its Emergency Management department to prepare for and respond to EMP related events. In Southeast Michigan, transmission company ITC recognizes the threat posed by geomagnetic storms or an electromagnetic pulse. It wants the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to establish a program to stockpile critical transmission and distribution equipment.

Mitigating the threat posed by EMP should be a bipartisan issue. Every citizen in Michigan should support any state legislation aimed at improving the resiliency of critical infrastructure in the state, regardless of political beliefs.